Sunday, October 24, 2004

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After going without a goal in Major League Soccer postseason play, Earnie Stewart finally delivered for D.C. United last night against the MetroStars in Game1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And if that wasn’t enough, Alecko Eskandarian added an insurance goal that gave United some breathing room in its playoff series. Their second-half goals gave United an impressive 2-0 victory over the MetroStars before 11,161 at Giants Stadium.

Next Saturday, the total-goals, home-and-home playoff series shifts to RFK Stadium, where the MetroStars need to score at least two goals and allow none to force a 30-minute “golden-goal” overtime. If United wins, ties or loses by one goal, it advances to the Eastern Conference final Nov.6.

“The series is not over. We have to keep our feet on the ground, and we’ll see what happens next week,” United coach Peter Nowak said.

This game was the first all season in which Freddy Adu, United’s teenage sensation, did not appear. Adu suffered a shoulder injury in last Sunday’s game but practiced all week.

For two seasons, United has waited for the highly decorated Stewart to produce, something he has done so many times on the U.S. national team. He had just five career goals for United. But last night, when it counted the most, the much-maligned Stewart scored the biggest goal of his MLS career on a powerful 6-yard blast in the 67th minute.

Stewart, 35, was alone on the right flank as he had been all game, and central defender Ryan Nelsen played a 40-yard ball to him. The savvy veteran took the ball to the edge of the 6-yard box and blasted a right-footed shot to the upper left corner to give United a 1-0 lead.

“I waited so Esky could show up and place it to him, but that would take too much time, so I banged it second post,” Stewart said of his game-changing goal. “It’s not over with, that’s for sure, but it’s a nice cushion to go back to D.C and play at our place, hopefully rocking like back in the old days. That would be tremendous.”

In the 88th minute, Eskandarian sealed the victory and possibly the series when his left-footed strike at the top of the box beat MetroStars goalkeeper Jonny Walker to the lower right corner.

Forward Jaime Moreno, who led MLS in assists this season with 14, slotted the ball to Eskandarian at the top of the box. Eskandarian, who scored 10 goals this season, beat rookie Jeff Parke to the middle and leaned and fired, beating Walker to the near right post.

“I knew I had Parke one-on-one in that situation and coming in from the right side, and I kind of jockeyed him a little bit — I wanted to see what side he was going to be favoring,” Eskandarian said. “He was on his heels backing up so I knew I could get a step on him.”

The MetroStars showed in the first half that their playoff defense is much better than their league-worst unit that allowed 49 goals in the regular season. Perhaps a change in personnel was all that was needed.

MetroStars right back Craig Ziadie was forced to sit out of last night’s game because of a red card when he fouled Adu in last Sunday’s regular-season finale at RFK. Tim Regan played right back for Ziadie.

Whether the difference was Regan, who was making just his eighth start of the season, or a better overall defensive effort, United couldn’t create many scoring chances in the first half.

The MetroStars forced United goalkeeper Nick Rimando to make two diving saves on Amado Guevara’s free kicks. Guevara, who tied with New England Revolution forward Pat Noonan as MLS’ scoring leader with 30 points (10 goals, 10 assists), served a 35-yard ball in the 12th minute to Parke, who headed Guevara’s service into a diving Rimando.

In the 38th minute, Rimando dove to his left and parried away a 26-yard curling Guevara free kick with his extended right hand. Rimando was credited with four saves in the first half, three of which came on set pieces. Rimando finished with seven saves.

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